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Is a 4-3-3 in the cards? RSL showcase formation in efficient victory over Timbers reserves

Matt Montgomery

Friday's match against Portland Timbers saw little in the way of unexpected tactics from Jason Kreis for Real Salt Lake: The narrow diamond was deemed sufficient, and sure enough, it more than was. That was somewhat aided by a Caleb Porter-led Timbers side that looked as if they'd been thrust into the wilderness with their only instructions something along the lines of: "Play a 3-6-1, guys."

And so it was that there was room on the flanks between the defense and the midfield, and if there ever was a space you didn't want to leave wide open space, that's the one. In the coming days, we'll go over why that's important. For now, let's talk about something a little different.

While Friday didn't see tactical adjustments from Kreis (perhaps he had a mole in the Portland camp who advised him on Porter's plans), Saturday saw something interesting emerge: Jeff Cassar's RSL reserves side, in a 1-0 besting of Portland's corollary, rolled out in a 4-3-3 that differed somewhat from what we've seen from Kreis. Let's talk about what changed, focusing squarely on the first half, as the affair became altogether different after the break.

First, the lineup: Lalo Fernandez; Aaron Maund, Brandon McDonald, Chris Schuler, Ricardo Gardner; Yordany Alvarez, Cole Grossman, Khari Stephenson; Sebastian Velasquez, Devon Sandoval, Robbie Findley. Note that the lineup reads from right to left in each section, so Aaron Maund started at right back, Robbie Findley was on the left of the front line, and so on.

Two players in this lineup define the 4-3-3: Robbie Findley and Sebastian Velasquez. The midfield is a distributive one, but not one that made too many runs on the day - this is perhaps down to personnel and is not a function of the tactical approach. As we had two wide attacking players, the full backs were not overly adventurous, particularly with Gardner on the left. (Gardner has since returned to Jamaica and will not be signing with Real Salt Lake.)

Robbie Findley: The inverted winger

The inverted winger is a tricky position, but the basic gist is simply that you have taken a traditional winger, wherein their strong side is closer to touch than it is to goal, and placed them on the other side. The tactical effects of this are many. First, you get the winger moving toward goal rather than away from goal; in a side which doesn't rely on crossing from the flanks, you're essentially pushing play narrower and higher up the pitch. This also allows for more decoy runs to the flanks to disrupt and stretch play, or to run toward goal and open space on the flanks for other players, thus further disrupting the affair.

This is not a perfect spot for Findley, as most inverted wingers you see are a bit trickier on the ball. Speed is a vital asset, and he has that in spades, and he also has fine awareness. Perfect? Perhaps not. But he could function there, and he could certainly learn to function there more effectively. Throughout Saturday's reserve match, he made the right sorts of runs on the left, and a couple times, he and Velasquez switched sides, further confusing the opposition. He

Sebastian Velasquez: The wide attacking midfielder

Maybe we're splitting hairs here, but we really do need to differentiate between the roles of Velasquez and Findley, on the right and the left, respectively. Both did play in spots where they were inverted, but Findley played much closer to how we'd expect the winger to play. Conversely, Velasquez played further away from the touchline and aimed more to distribute than to push and pull players out of position with possession and off-the-ball movement. Aaron Maund's runs up the right were vital here, as they introduced a player to the right side who wasn't accounted for by the defensive marking.

Had Velasquez and Findley played identical roles, the opposition would have had little trouble counteracting their influence: The opposing full backs could have simply pushed play into wide areas with the knowledge that crosses into the box would be cleared by the defense, and with a less-hefty midfield facing them, would not be terribly vulnerable to shots from distance.

Did it work?

That's a bigger question and a difficult one to answer. Against the opposition on the day, it worked, but against full-strength opposition and with a full-strength side, the affair might go a bit differently. We've tried the 4-2-1-3 - essentially a 4-3-3 with an attacking midfielder - before with limited success, but this is decidedly different. Instead of playing with three strikers, this saw us with two and an attacking midfielder. Both wide players tracked back efficiently and actively. That's essential. Will it work in the future? We'll see.

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